by Terry Thompson-Anderson
Who doesn’t love fried food? Some might even reason that many of the South’s favorite foods—chicken, okra, potatoes, onion rings, turkey, pickles, crab cakes, oysters, catfish and shrimp—are even better when fried. Yet, deep-frying remains confusing and intimidating to many home cooks. The process does require a bit of skill, but the key is the right combination of breading, or battering, technique and the proper temperature of the fat in which the food is fried. And though some might cringe at the large pot of fat needed for deep-frying, the good news is that by using the right temperature and timing, the absorption of fat into the food can be kept to a minimum. When all is in harmony, the essential juices of the food stay sealed inside the flavorful golden crust and the oil is prevented from seeping inside.
The best way to successfully deep-fry is to use a readily available and reasonably priced countertop deep-fryer. These devices have a thermostat that helps maintain a steady frying temperature, and they also prevent messy splatters on the stovetop. If you don’t have one, though, a quart of oil in a five-quart Dutch oven and a deep-fry thermometer will do the trick. Maintaining the oil’s temperature is critical, because if the temperature is too low, the oil will seep into the foods and they will become soggy instead of crisp. If the oil is too hot, the foods will become overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside.
When foods are added to the hot fat, the sudden high heat turns moisture on the surface of the food into steam. This steam rushes out and sizzles. Then, moisture from the center of the food moves toward the outside to replace the water that’s been lost. As the steam slows down, the surface of the food heats up and begins to brown—creating a crisp barrier that’s difficult for the oil to penetrate. A tiny bit of the oil seeps into some of the steam channels—raising the temperature of the food just enough to heat the remaining moisture, and causing the food to swell and cook through without becoming soggy. Temperatures for deep-frying range from 350 degrees to 390 degrees, and the smaller the pieces of food being fried, the higher the temperature at which they should be cooked.
Choose oil with a neutral flavor to avoid affecting the flavor of the food or the seasoning in the breading or batter. Oil with a high smoke point is also important; the smoke/flash point of the oil should be higher than the temperature at which the food will be cooked. Canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, corn oil and grapeseed oil are good choices for frying. Also, never use the same oil to fry more than once because water and protein particles escape into the oil and degrade its quality. Even oil with a high flash point can be broken down by one use and its flash point lowered by over 100 degrees.
Make sure that foods are patted very dry before battering or breading—excess moisture will interfere with the frying process. And always fry in manageable batches to avoid crowding the oil and radically dropping its temperature. To prevent the batter or breading from falling off the food when it’s added to the oil, use a triple-stage method of battering/breading to ensure that the crust adheres. To do this, first dredge the food in a seasoned flour mixture (I like to use self-rising flour for an extra bit of “puff”). Then dip it in a milk and egg wash (I like to use equal parts of whole milk and whole, full-fat buttermilk). Finally, dredge it once again either in the seasoned flour, or into a mixture of seasoned cornmeal, breadcrumbs or panko breadcrumbs. Shake off any excess flour, egg wash and final batter after each step, and use one hand for dredging the foods in the dry ingredients and the other hand for the egg wash. This will avoid getting the egg wash into the dry mixes, which creates messy lumps, and also avoids battering your hands with more batter than the food!
Much has been written about properly draining deep-fried foods to keep them crisp—some recipes even call for draining on brown grocery bags. The most important thing to remember, though, is good air circulation. Before frying the food, set a wire rack over a baking sheet. As you remove food from the hot oil, place it on the rack and it will drain while remaining crisp.